CARDIFF, Wales – For Cristiano Ronaldo, the Champions League final brought another night of triumph. Ronaldo scored twice, becoming the first man since Alfredo di Stefano to score in three European finals. He won the Champions League for a fourth time, helping Real Madrid rout Juventus 4-1 to become the first side since AC Milan in 1990 to successfully defend the title. And he all but ensured that he will win the Ballon d’Or for a fifth time, taking him level with Lionel Messi. Individual awards in football may be pointless baubles, but they matter to him.
This was a masterclass in Ronaldo 3.0. The first age of Cristiano cast him as a lank-haired teenager, a thin, whippet-like presence forever overcomplicating and embarking on needless dribbles. The second age saw him become much more discerning in the usage of his immense talent, coupling astonishing technical skill with an extraordinary physique. This third era, which has been going on perhaps 18 months now, sees him as a pared down talent, a player who is still physically imposing, but who lacks the explosive pace of old, who eschews dribbling almost entirely, and who operates in a much smaller zone around the penalty area.
Other than the two goals, it’s hard to remember much of what Ronaldo did in the final. There were a couple of tumbles early on as he was out-muscled by defenders, and plaintive appeals to the referee. But it had seemed Juventus was dealing with him relatively successfully when, after 20 minutes, he exchanged passes with Dani Carvajal and swept a shot into the bottom corner via a deflection off the toe of Leonardo Bonucci. Fortunate? Perhaps, a little. But then his awareness and the speed of the interchange with Carvajal were what created the opening. Had his shot been, say, three inches to the left, it probably would have missed Bonucci’s foot and beaten Buffon anyway.
His second was a classic poacher’s goal. As he darted across the near post to meet Luka Modric’s cross with a deft flick, he could have been Gary Lineker or Michael Owen. The finish was harder than it looked requiring a knowledge of Buffon’s positioning, but the key aspect was his anticipation, of knowing where and when Modric was going to deliver the ball and making sure he was there before the defenders.
Rare Photos of Cristiano Ronaldo
Although he had six shots in the game, Ronaldo touched the ball only 37 times, fewer than any other outfielder who finished the game other than Gonzalo Higuain. A player who once frustrated with his insistence on ornamentation and over-elaboration has become a devastating minimalist. This has been a trend throughout the knockout stages. He has scored 10 goals in Madrid’s last five games in the competition and repeatedly the question after games has been, “Apart from the hat trick, what did he actually do?”
In that sense, Ronaldo is a throwback. Modern football is not supposed to have any room for players who only score. This is supposed to be the age of the universal player, in which even goalscorers press and tackle and hassle and harry. But then, Real Madrid itself is something of a throwback.
It doesn’t stand for any philosophy. Nobody in the future will look back at this side that has won three of the last four Champions Leagues and see it as a pioneer of anything. It’s just full of extremely good players–itself a facet of the club’s wealth. Arrigo Sacchi always argued that a side’s tactics should have a multiplicatory effect, that the whole should be greater than the sum of its parts. Perhaps that is true for this Madrid, but it’s certainly not as true as it was for Sacchi’s Milan, the last side to win back-to-back European titles.
There was plenty of skepticism about the Madrid of 2016, which was arguably the weakest of the 11 Real Madrid sides to have won the Champions League. Then, its route to the final was straightforward as it beat Roma, Wolfsburg and a supine Manchester City before overcoming Atletico Madrid in the final on penalties.
There can be no such doubts this time. Madrid had beaten Napoli, Bayern Munich and Atletico before a 4-1 win over the Italian champion, Juventus. It has proved itself unquestionably the best side in Europe. What that actually means is another issue. Romantics who see teambuilding as being about more than simply buying lots of very good players will never entirely warm to them.
But what cannot be denied is that in this era of superclubs, Madrid is the superset and Ronaldo is the embodiment of that.